The Starter’s Pistol Is Fired

The Very Beginning of The Czech Auction Market in 1989

The Czech auction market has reached the age of maturity. It turned 25 in 2014. It was fascinating to be there when it was drawing breath.

In front of me I have a thin brochure in a white folder, a catalogue of the first contemporary auction of art and antiques in the Czech Republic. Today, I can hardly believe that putting together such a catalogue and publicly auctioning a few dozen items was a dangerous, risky act before the fall of the previous regime.

A quarter of a century ago, exactly on October 22, 1989, several men in Prague started the art business whose current turnover is roughly one billion korunas a year. When they organised the first private auction of art and antiques in 37 years at Prague’s Žofín under the name of the business co-operative Antikva Nova Praga, it was exactly twenty-six days until the fall of the communist regime.

There were 382 items in the catalogue of this historic auction. Big names such as Jan Preisler, Otto Gutfreund, Jan Zrzavý and Otakar Nejedlý figured among the paintings, although it was mostly their works on paper that were on offer. Gutfreund’s drawing from 1927 for 12,000 korunas, Zrzavý’s pastel from 1929 for 38,000, but also a half-litre glass for 300 and two cast-iron kitchen scales for 1,500 and 2,000, respectively, which would probably not sell well even today in a junk shop. Sacral art and reverse glass paintings with religious motifs were also on offer. No law on the export of objects of cultural value existed then and there were no restrictions.

“Those were heroic times. None of us had any experience with doing business. We had no idea what cash flow was. We determined prices as we went along,” reveals Ilja Bouberle, today the owner of an antiques store in the centre of Prague and vice-president of the Antique Dealers Association of the Czech Republic. He was then invited among the founders as a buyer.

Emil Filla: The Gold Fish by the Window / 1916 / oil on canvas / 69 x 54 cm / 8 030 000 Kč / Antikva Nova Kold 4. 6. 2000
Emil Filla: The Gold Fish by the Window / 1916 / oil on canvas / 69 x 54 cm / 8 030 000 Kč / Antikva Nova Kold 4. 6. 2000


The descriptions of individual items in the first catalogue were laconic. “We were learning. The last available catalogues were from the beginning of the 1950s when the interior furnishings of entire chateaux were being sold off at state-controlled auctions and the descriptions in them were even briefer,” explains Jan Neumann, the auctioneer of the first contemporary auction and today’s president of the Antique Dealers Association.

The auction at Žofín was a big event. Over 600 people came and 130 people picked up auction numbers, but only a few participated in the auction. A 10 per cent auctioneer commission was added to the final prices. Reports on the overall revenues vary. Those who were there at the very beginning, such as jeweller Aleš Rozehnal, believe that “the revenues more or less covered the costs.” Jiří Majrich, one of the four treasurers at the auction and today’s owner of Podolské vetešnictví, says four million korunas. The press of the time claims two million korunas.

Lawyer René Winkler was at the founding of Antikva Nova Praga and discovered that, even though public auctions had not been banned for years, the forgotten Auctioning Act was still valid, and therefore it was possible to organise an auction. The new auction company was “covered” as a favour by the chairman of the municipal council of the Central Bohemian village of Hradištko pod Medníkem, František Hřebík. Formally, the municipal council offices became the auctioneer’s business premises.

František Kupka: The Shape of Blue / 1913 / oil on canvas / 73 x 60 cm / 57 422 500 Kč / Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery / 18. 4. 2012

František Kupka: The Shape of Blue / 1913 / oil on canvas / 73 x 60 cm / 57 422 500 Kč / Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery / 18. 4. 2012


Among others, painting collector Pavel Kodl was invited as an expert and was later joined by his son Martin, today the owner of the successful auction house, Galerie Kodl. He remembers: “My father was supposed to be a consultant there, but he didn’t want to be. He was afraid it would end badly, that they would all end up in prison. And if it hadn’t been for the 17th of November, it would certainly have ended that way. The situation made me so nervous that once roughly 10 items had been auctioned, I had to go out on the terrace of Žofín Palace to calm down. Jiří Pavel, brother of the author Ota Pavel, was standing there with me, he was another invited expert, and he felt the same way I did. He said he couldn’t stay inside as he was thinking about us all ending up in prison.”

What for? For daring to create private competition to the only legal socialist firm, Klenoty (Jewellery), the outlet for the state-run corporation Starožitnosti (Antiques). They were also afraid of people around the secret-police-controlled Dřevozpracující podnik (Woodworking Corporation), which paradoxically dealt in antiques and ran a store in Mostecká Street in Prague’s Lesser Town. “But the regime was already in agony and the potentates had completely different worries,” Jan Neumann says, commenting on the atmosphere of those days.

The first private auction was well-received and the art market started moving. This was the firing of the starter’s pistol, the beginning of a long journey, the milestone that breathed life back into which dealing in paintings primarily by Czech artists.

So many things were suddenly taking place for the first time! Jiří Tichý’s Nuselská 19 auction house was established and competition between two private auction houses began, which was something unheard of until then. The Antique Dealers Association was founded in 1991. The first world auction house, Dorotheum of Vienna, opened a branch in Prague in 1992, even though it only started organising auctions five years later. In November 1993, the first antiques fair, Antik, took place at U Hybernů Palace in the centre of Prague. Unlike what is customary abroad, only auction houses could exhibit there. One case connected with Antik provided an impulse to make the art market a journalistic field in our country.

The press agency released a report that a precious Baroque altar belonging to our cultural heritage was being offered at the fair. The idea that someone was “dealing” in something like that was at that time unanimously considered scandalous and thus encouraged journalists to speak out. Hospodářské noviny’s chief editor ordered me to run down there and “squeeze” the cheeky dealer. We had not written about the art market before and perhaps hadn’t even heard the term before. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The Holy Cross Altar from the chateau in Uhrov in East Bohemia is a beautiful late Baroque carving from non-polychromed wood, a work by Ignác Rohrbach from around 1735. Today one can see it in the permanent exhibition of the Art Gallery in Havlíčkův Brod. It was not sold at the fair and the gallery bought it in 1996 from the people to whom it had been returned in restitution.

In the hall of U Hybernů, the altar was impressively installed and illuminated. The “dealer”, Jan Neumann from Antikva Nova Praga, said that it was normal that some collections dissolve and others are created and that “goods” circulate. That even cultural heritage could be sold if the new owners did not export it illegally. He did not convince us, but did sow a seed of doubt as to whether we should really start focusing on the art market.

Sotheby’s opened an office in Prague in 1993. It was still uncharted territory here. The Sotheby’s representative in the Czech Republic, Katharina Podewils, had to explain, for example, that unsigned graphic works that were being auctioned here would not be sold at all in London or that not every Monet was genuine and not every expert valuer was a recognised authority.

In the paper, we launched a weekly feature in 1994 and later a full page on the art market. There was nothing to guide us; we had to learn fast and build everything from scratch.

In the foreign press I discovered Top 10 charts and introduced them here, for the first time for 1995. At that time, the most expensive painting was Emil Filla’s Kitchen Still Life (1923), auctioned at Nuselská 19 for CZK 2.09 million.

It was not easy to write about this new field in a country where counterfeits were in circulation and where some new auction houses reported sales double that of reality to increase their prestige. In addition, we occasionally had to fight for our place in the sun, to face the prejudice that the art market was a negligible field, that it did not pay off, that no one was interested in it…

The 1994 Act on the export of objects of cultural value set limits. At the beginning of 1996, representatives of three large world auction houses, with Christie’s arriving last, showing us the right way to go about auctioneering. The euphoric era of auctions from large restitutions, which lasted until 2002 and will never be repeated, was lurking around the corner.

It was beautiful to experience all the building, searching and discovering. To see how the Czech art market overcame its growing pains – even though some of them have not been completely overcome to this day – how it grew strong and became cultivated. To be there when a new surge followed the slowdown after the restitutions were sold off.

Last year I visited Katharina Podewils, now with the married name of Sayn-Wittgenstein, in Hamburg where she is in charge of a Sotheby’s branch. We met twenty years after she started working in Prague when she was not yet 30 years old. “Those were pioneering times,” she recalled. “Today I tell myself how lucky I was to escape unhurt. I don’t regret anything. It was completely different than today, but fascinating.”

I concur. Today, with fourteen relevant auction houses active, I am only sorry that so few people attend auctions in person. It used to be great to see architect Michael Třeštík fight for a large vase by Jaroslav Horejc or some cubist box by Janák. To meet Kooperativa pojišťovna director Vladimír Mráz, who was personally building a collection of Czech art for his institution. To watch duels between Vladimír Železný and the representative of the American collectors, the Hascoes. Those days are long gone…


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